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Region program teaches people how to start ag businesses or community gardens in city
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Region program teaches people how to start ag businesses or community gardens in city

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The recently launched Gary Urban Farmer’s Initiative is teaching residents of the Rust Belt steel town how to grow food in the city in order to start small businesses, plant community gardens, or just put more fresh fruit and vegetables on their family's plates.

Purdue Extension — Gary is now teaching nearly 30 students at the Gary Career Center about the practice of urban agriculture for its 2020 Gary Urban Farmer’s Initiative Urban Agriculture Certificate Training, as well as making farming tools available for the city's residents to borrow.

The 12-week course covers advanced farming techniques, working with brownfields and food safety issues. Students are learning how to plant crops, maintain their own farms and create businesses. One student, for instance, hopes to grow tomatoes, garlic and other ingredients in Gary to launch his own locally made barbecue sauce company, Purdue Extension-Lake County educator Anthony Van Gorp said.

Students draft business plans, get introduced to the U.S. Small Business Administration and are given the chance to fill out applications to become certified Women and Minority Owned Small Businesses. The current crop is slated to graduate in April with a ceremony at ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen.

Gary residents have turned to urban farming for years as a way to address the city's persistent food desert problem, in which fresh fruits and vegetables are not readily available for many residents.

"Captain America or Wonder Women aren’t coming to fix this," said Pastor Curtis Whittaker, of Faith Farms. "It is up to us."

Established in conjunction with the city of Gary, the Gary Urban Farmer’s Initiative works with Faith Farms and Peace Garden & Farms to give students hands-on training on vacant plots of land that have been converted into small farms. They for instance learn how to grow tomatoes on trellises, how to raise crops in greenhouses, and how to sell food at farmers' markets.

"We have everyone from a grandmother who wants to grow more produce for her family to someone who wants to put 19 acres into production," Van Gorp said. "We have a person who wants to start a blueberry patch to make syrup and jam. Students are interested in raising organic produce that they'll sell in Miller or to supply that smoothie shop in the Hudson-Campbell Fitness Center. One's interested in almost wholesale production of greens and watermelons. They've got some great ideas we're shaping into business plans so they can start a business."

The hope is that the program will help make fresh, nutritious food more accessible in Gary, Van Gorp said.

"People in low-income neighborhoods often don't have any fresh produce at the corner store," he said. "That leads to a host of problems like high blood pressure and obesity. We're trying to fight that with more produce, healthier fruit, raspberry bushes and blackberry bushes."

It also means more economic opportunity because people can sell what they grow at farmers markets to restaurants or stores, he said.

"In effect you're creating more business people and entrepreneurs," he said. "People might sell jellies or pies and start their own small business. Small businesses carry this country. They're a dynamic force in this country."

Urban agriculture programs have been successful in Detroit, Kansas City and other urban environments, Van Gorp said. The practice has a rich history that includes the Victory Gardens people raised during World War I and World War II.

"Local produce when grown properly is good for you," he said. "It promotes healthy eating, healthy living and community development."

Anyone in Gary who's interested can inquire about future classes or $5,000 in farm equipment that can be borrowed through the Gary Urban Farmer’s Initiative's tool-sharing initiative.

For more information, contact Van Gorp at avangorp@purdue.edu or 219.882.3000.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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